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Some campaigns have itchy “delete” finger on candidate Facebook accounts

Some campaigns have itchy “delete” finger on candidate Facebook accounts

A weeklong Morning Call analysis shows some campaigns deleted dozens of opposing comments on their Facebook walls.


5:13 PM EDT, October 31, 2010

Like many out-of-work Americans, electrician Rob Snyder turned to Facebook to fill his time between jobs. And as political campaigns heated up this fall, the Mechanicsburg man spent a lot of time on gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett’s fan page, debating other users on the finer points of policy

But as time went on, his posts started disappearing.

It didn’t take long for him to realize what was going on. He says Corbett’s staff was deleting his comments, which tended to be critical of the candidate. As his frustration and posting frequency mounted, he soon found himself banned from the page altogether.

Now the administrator of an alternative Facebook page — “I got banned from Tom Corbett’s page for asking fair questions” — the electrician says his voice in the online dialogue was shut out, silenced in favor of sanitizing the candidate’s online presence.

“As we get closer to the election, I’m seeing anything and anybody that’s not a cheerleader just getting yanked down,” Snyder said. “They say they’re deleting profanities or spamming or things like that — but there was no profanity in my questions. The questions were valid.”

As candidates invest into online social networks like Facebook to get their message to voters, they’re finding them a double-edge sword, granting intimate access to supporters but opening their campaigns up to criticism on their own sites. And while most say they encourage open dialogue on their Facebook fan pages, some of the comments that go missing suggest otherwise.

From Oct. 19 through Oct. 26 and during a test run the week before, The Morning Call used a computer program to monitor the Facebook pages of four candidates — Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato in gubernatorial race, and Republican Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak in the U.S. Senate. Scanning their publically accessible pages every three minutes, the program would note when a previously posted comment disappeared, indicating it had been removed.

Comments that appeared to have been accidentally deleted and subsequently reposted were not counted.

All four candidates have big audiences on their fan pages, which, unlike most Facebook profiles, are viewable by all and can be “liked” and commented on by any Facebook user. Toomey boasts more 17,800 followers, followed by Corbett with 12,100, Sestak with 11,300 and Onorato with 7,700.

Sestak, a Democrat, drew the most comments of the four candidates, with 587 posted within the week. His opponent pulled in just behind, with 399 comments posted to the Toomey for Senate account. Onorato and Corbett brought up the rear, with 281 and 220 comments respectively.

Corbett appeared to be the most willing to strike comments during the week, with 30 disappearing in the week, or almost 14 percent of his total feedback. Sestak came in second with 21 comments, or 3.6 percent.

Their opponents both posted lower removal rates: 10 comments for Toomey, or 2.51 percent, and six for Onorato, or 2.14 percent.

Some of the deleted comments are silly: “I’ll save everybody the trouble of going to see Rudy,” wrote one commenter responding to a Toomey post on an upcoming appearance with the former mayor of New York. “9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11.”

Many are irrelevant, or clearly spam: “Get Curious, click here.”

And some are even complimentary, indicating they may have been pulled down by accident or technical error: “Im praying for you Pat. Go get em team Pat.”

But some appear to be the kind of commentary people like Snyder believe candidates are too quick to cleanse.

“How proud he must be to pass legislation that took school vouchers away from families in DC,” wrote one commenter on Sestak’s wall on Oct. 21 in a post that disappeared 20 minutes later.

“They say the race between Toomey and Sestak is tightening,” another commenter posted on Toomey’s Facebook page on Oct. 20. “Well it’s no wonder … Toomey’s commercials suck! Who is running his campaign?” The post disappeared eight hours later.

Social media experts say it’s not surprising that what may be perceived as negative comments are being removed by candidates.

“Really, the goal of these things are to be a brochure,” said Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor at Lehigh University specializing in social media. “You’re going to see more of these interactive tools, but not necessarily anything where you can truly interact with the candidates. It’s too cross-purposed with the message they’re trying to promote.”

Campaign staffs said they’re dedicated to keeping their candidates’ Facebook pages open to debate. While all four campaigns have different policies — Onorato only allows users to comment on his own posts, Corbett’s staff sometimes jumps in to answer questions — all said they only remove messages that are profane or badgering.

“A counterpoint or disagreement, I won’t delete,” Toomey new media director Tim Kelly said. “But when it comes down to anything race related, anything with foul language, anything that unnecessarily attacks my candidate or a group … it goes.”

There’s a fine line between a heated debate and a flame war, Corbett social media director Kelli Roberts said. Snyder, who had 16 comments deleted in the past week, admits he may now fall into the latter category.

“Why is Tom Corbett scared of the truth?” he wrote in one comment deleted within eight minutes. “If he can’t be honest enough to answer simple questions now how could anybody possibly think he is qualified to be governor of PA?”

“Some people cross those lines into the heckling side,” Roberts said, referencing Snyder. “At the end of the day, they become spammers.”

Onorato’s staff did not return requests for comment by press time.

Responding to the test results, staffers said it’s possible that users just deleted their posts themselves. Comments might have also disappeared when the campaign deleted the original post they were attached to, they said. Sestak’s staff, for instance, deletes campaign posts after a few days to keep the page fresh.

To be clear, many of the deleted comments come from a few committed dissenters who continually repost their concerns. Many deleted comments also attached links to third-party websites and YouTube videos with their comments, a no-no on most campaign pages.

But, as Snyder’s case shows, many find another way to get their views heard. “I got banned from Tom Corbett’s page for asking fair questions” had 176 fans by Friday afternoon, and its founder says it’s growing every day.

“I was doing what I could,” he said. “I was trying to get it out there in front of people. If one person changes their mind, I’m happy.”


Copyright © 2010, The Morning Call

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